Devon’s democratic deficit: the case for a progressive alliance to ensure better representation for all

“All Join Hands” by Jocey K is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The UK elections of 6 May 2021 revealed a fragmented political landscape. Although the results showed, as do most national polls, that the combined support for the opposition parties continues to exceed the Conservatives’, they showed no sign that Labour alone would be likely to oust Boris Johnson’s increasingly authoritarian and nationalist regime in the next General Election. Despite deep corruption and the worst pandemic record of any major Western country, the opposition remains relatively weak, and so divided that the Johnson-style Conservatives look likely to stay in power under the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system . This situation was also reflected in reflected in many councils, such as Devon, the largest in the South West. 

A big Conservative majority based on a minority of votes

Devon is often seen as overwhelmingly Conservative – and the party once more gained a huge majority (65 per cent) of seats. However this was on the basis of a minority (42 per cent) of the vote. The combined votes of Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens exceeded the Tories’ even without including Independents, many of whom are left-leaning. Yet under FPTP, all four groups lost seats to the Conservatives compared with what a proportional distribution would have given them, as the table shows.

Overall results of the 2021 Devon County Council elections

  (2017 resultsin brackets)distributionadvantage
Conservatives10869242.4 (44.4)39 (42)2613
Liberal Democrats4539517.7 (21.7)9 (7)11-2
Labour4064015.9 (15.2)7 (7)10-3
Green Party2850111.0 (5.4)2 (1)7-5
Independents2743610.8 (9.8)3 (3)6-3
Other parties31841.2 (1.5)0 (0)00

This outcome was not an outlier. In 2017, the Conservatives won 70 per cent of the seats for a slightly larger minority share. In 2013 and 2009, too, they won comfortable overall majorities for minority votes. Not since 2005, when the Lib Dems tied with them on 42 per cent and actually won a majority of seats, has there been a different outcome.

Support for PR

So the Devon opposition has faced this situation for a decade and a half. Have they made any efforts to counter it – or do they march, election after election, into inevitable defeats born of lack of unity? Theoretically, opposition councillors see the problem. On 29 April 2021, at the pre-election meeting of Devon County Council, I proposed a motion welcoming the Welsh parliament’s initiative to allow councils to choose a reformed electoral system such as the Single Transferable Vote, and asking the UK government to introduce the same option for Devon. All the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Green and Independent councillors – except the leader of the Labour group – supported this.

Seats which the opposition could have won

Yet a week later, these opposition parties stood against each other in the elections, with the sadly predictable results reported above. Since Labour dominates Exeter but is hardly a serious contender outside it (Plymouth being a unitary authority), and the Greens are slowly rising but still significantly weaker than Labour and the slowly declining Lib Dems, there was no way that any sector of the opposition could have broken out and won alone under FPTP.

The plurality of oppositions countywide was reflected in the individual seats, with many 3- or 4-way splits of anti-Conservative votes. Looking at the results seat-by-seat, there were 11 seats which opposition forces could have gained if one or more of the weaker opposition candidates had stood down:

  • Lib Dems could have won Chudleigh and Teign Valley, Braunton Rural,  and Tiverton East
  • Labour could have won Duryard and Pennsylvania.
  • Independent East Devon Alliance (EDA) could have won Axminster, Seaton and Colyton, and Sidmouth.
  • Other Independents could have won Northam, Okehampton Rural, Yelverton Rural and Tavistock.

On the figures, some of these ‘gains’ seem near-certainties, while others are more speculative. If the Conservatives had lost all these seats, they would have lost their majority. It is more probable that at least half of these seats could have been gained and the Conservative majority drastically reduced resulting in a big improvement in representation for Devon’s voters as a whole.

Seeds of a Progressive Alliance

Three of the opposition forces, the Lib Dems, Greens and EDA did develop some local understandings which materially assisted their performance:

  • Lib Dems gained South Brent and Teignmouth after the Greens did not stand.
  • Greens held Totnes after Lib Dems did not stand, and won a seat in the two-member Broadclyst division after they and the Lib Dems stood only one candidate each.
  • EDA came close to winning Axminster and Seaton & Colyton after the Greens did not stand, and Sidmouth after both the Greens and Lib Dems did not stand, while EDA not stand in seats where the two parties were contenders.

Local understandings also existed in other places: e.g. in Tiverton, the Lib Dems and Greens contested one seat each, both gaining second place, while in Exmouth, Independents and Lib Dems each contested only one seat in the two-member division, gaining the 3rd and 4th places out of a field of 7, behind two winning Tories.

The need for a comprehensive cross-party agreements in future elections

These understandings are a model for future cooperation, but they were too limited to affect the overall outcome. The Greens were the party most open to them, but the Lib Dems had inconsistent approaches, while Labour insisted on standing in every seat, sometimes with ‘paper’ candidates who won derisory percentages of the vote – but sufficient to cost other opposition candidates seats in close races. In post-election discussions, some Labour members have disowned this approach, imposed by their national party.

However, Labour and some Lib Dem members have also defended standing candidates as widely as possible, on the basis that withdrawing candidates denies the electorate the choice of their particular brands. Yet a wide choice doesn’t necessarily engage voters. In Exmouth, where five opposition candidates challenged the Tories for two seats but none had a credible claim to be the main challengers, turnout was a miserable 30 per cent. In nearby Sidmouth, clearly a close 2-horse race, 43 per cent came out.

Winning is a collaborative affair

In Devon, as nationwide, anti-Conservative voters are ever more outraged by Johnson’s regime, while some Conservative-inclined voters, including those alienated by the current government, will definitely vote for effective opposition or Independent candidates in local elections. It’s plausible to argue that both will be more enthused by potential winners. Many will happily vote for whichever of the opposition forces has a good local candidate who is likely to win.

Winning would surely be made more likely with county-wide collaboration between the parties, mirroring the cooperation in some of the district councils. After 12 years in which Devon has been dominated by a Conservative government which takes the South West for granted and a complacent Conservative County Council, the opposition could gain from a joined-up challenge to the Conservatives in the council chamber and the local media – while preparing the way for a synchronised electoral challenge, negotiated between the groupings, in future local elections.

If you are concerned about the democratic deficit in the UK, please join our free Q&A session “How do we fix our broken democracy”, 26 May, 20:00. Our panel: Klina Jordan, co-founder and chief executive of Make Votes Matter; Mary Southcott, from Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.; Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy and Molly Scott Cato, former MEP (Green Party), economist and activist.